MechWarrior 3 – A Retrospective Review

I have mentioned before the inaccuracy and unrealistic aspects of mecha as they are depicted in all but the most fastidious series and about how they are regularly depicted as being substantially more powerful than physics would dictate in a universe displaying a resemblance to the real world. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying a few series which bring mecha to the fore, the most prominent among these being the BattleTech universe. I first encountered the BattleTech universe with the animated series in the 1990s, which was admittedly poor-quality and inaccurate but was sufficiently exciting when I was eight for me to enjoy it.

Later, I discovered MechWarrior 3, a game set in a similar time period in the universe as the animated series. Despite my inability to get to grips with the controls – not aided by the fact that I didn’t have a joystick, I completed many of the missions but never completed the entire campaign. I left the game aside for several years, partially because of my inability to get the game running on more modern computer hardware and operating systems without the entire operating environment having a seizure. More recently, though, I managed to get the game running on Windows 7 and therefore complete the campaign.

MechWarrior 3 is a first-/third-person mecha simulation game released in 1999, developed by Zipper Interactive and published by MicroProse. The game takes place at the tail-end of the Inner Sphere counter-attack at the Clans following the Clan Invasion and follows the adventures of a lance of MechWarriors from the Eridani Light Horse mercenary company as they fight their way across a planet named Tranquil in search for Brandon Corbett, a high-ranking commander of Clan Smoke Jaguar who threatens to rally the scattered forces of the Clans to fight back against the Inner Sphere invaders.

The mission of the MechWarriors is to destroy several facilities on Tranquil to disrupt the plans of Galaxy Commander Corbett, but their mission gets off to a bad start when the dropship carrying the mechs and their pilots into action is shot down by an array of lasers on the ground. Few of the MechWarriors manage to escape with their lives and those that do are scattered across the planet far from their expected positions. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned by the Clan forces, the MechWarriors of the Eridani Light Horse must rejoin and fight their way against a superior force to find another dropship to retrieve them from the planet, while achieving the objectives designed for a more powerful force.

The game starts you out with a 55-ton Bushwacker, a Medium BattleMech armed with a balanced array of weapons, including a powerful long-range laser, a moderately powerful autocannon and a guided missile launcher. Across the planet, between your allies and enemies, you will encounter seventeen other types of mechs, ranging from 30-ton Firefly mechs with minimal armour and armaments, but which are fast and agile, to 100-ton Annihilator and Daishi (or Dire Wolf if you’re a Clanner) mechs with powerful weapons and plenty of armour, but which move like glaciers compared to the smaller mechs. Altogether, there is a reasonable collection of mechs, although there are substantially fewer than in the sequel, MechWarrior 4. Some of the mechs also seem rather misplaced – the Clan forces having substantially more mechs of Inner Sphere design than you would expect – while some of the more iconic mechs are missing, including the Atlas and Centurion included in the Pirate’s Moon expansion pack.

The game can be played in first-person or third-person, with nice, if generic, cockpit views in the first-person mode. There are multiple axes of movement for the mechs – horizontal movement through the movement of the legs and an adjustable throttle setting, torsos which can be twisted in order to fire in a direction other than that of movement, moveable arms through the freelook setting along with the ability to fit jump-jets to your mech in order to provide a limited amount of jumping ability. With all of these controls, the control schema overwhelms a traditional keyboard-and-mouse layout and I suggest the use of a joystick with either a twisting rudder axis or separate rudder pedals in order to most appropriately play the game.

The game follows a reasonably accurate model of the mechanics of the tabletop game, in particular modelling the build-up of heat through the firing of weapons along with the corresponding dissipation of heat through heat sinks built into or added to the mech, along with the damage system modelled in the tabletop game. With regard to the damage system, this does create some imbalances which only show up in the real-time, fast-paced action of a computer game. Some parts of a mech are quite a bit weaker than others, with the legs of the mech standing out as a particular target to experienced gamers, providing a relatively large target with a large pay-off if they are destroyed. Indeed, apart from long-range shots where the target is out of sight, it is usually a better strategy to aim for the legs than any other part of the mech – a strategy which I hear didn’t go down well in the multiplayer mode.

The heat system, on the other hand, is rather more balanced and provides some sort of balance against the lasers with their absence of ammunition and back towards autocannons which may have limited ammunition but produce little heat. As you approach the heat limit, the mech will automatically shut down, which can be very hazardous when facing off against a large force and if you push your luck too far, your mech will be destroyed as the reactor explodes. A small amount of heat can be vented with the use of a limited supply of coolant, but this will only suffice for emergencies. This system provides some degree of tactical thought, rather than just encouraging an “all-guns-blazing” approach; instead, it encourages one to pick their shots and fire decisively. The cacophony of sirens going off whenever you approach the heat limit is less desirable, on the other hand, which may happen quite a bit with a mech with high-powered energy weapons but high dissipation.

A group of service vehicles called Mobile Field Bases escorts you from mission to mission in the campaign, while their presence is also an option in the instant action and multiplayer modes. During the mission, they provide a place to repair and rearm the damaged mechs of you or your lancemates, while between campaign missions, they carry salvage from your spoils of war. This provides a modicum of logistical support throughout the campaign, carrying ammunition and salvaged weapons and mechs which can be used to enhance your fighting ability. Weapons and ammunition are automatically stripped from fallen mechs and enemy vehicles, while enemy mechs can occasionally be salvaged after a mission if they are destroyed by shooting off a leg or by being hit in the head. With the head being a considerably smaller target and only liable to being hit by luck or by careful shots on an effectively stationary target, the salvaging system promotes the targeting of the legs that was discussed above.

After the first few missions in the campaign or before an instant action or multiplayer mission, you can use acquired weapons, armour and equipment to modify your mechs in the MechLab. This provides a modular interface by which you can replace weapons, ammunition and equipment in your mech based on slots and weight, along with the addition of armour or more powerful engines with any weight remaining below the mech’s weight limit.


Working on the Madcat (Timber Wolf) in the MechLab.

This system does go some way in mitigating the comparative lack of mechs compared to MechWarrior 4, although it does lead to a situation where many of the Light or Medium BattleMechs become obsolete after the first few missions in the campaign, with more focus on Heavy BattleMechs such as the Thor (Summoner) or Madcat (Timber Wolf), which can be heavy-hitting, reasonably well-armoured and not too slow, along with some potential for heavier, slower Assault BattleMechs such as the Supernova, Sunder and Daishi (Dire Wolf). This is further pronounced by the power of missiles in the game, which appear to hit more often than in the tabletop game, giving Light BattleMechs little chance to survive in a protracted battle in open terrain. Nevertheless, the salvage system is a welcome addition to the campaign, giving good players the chance to score some powerful mechs rather early on, which makes going through some of the missions rather rewarding if you play through them right.

The campaign consists of 20 missions which take place in a variety of surroundings. In setting, the missions are varied enough, although most of them consist of destroying Clan facilities and forces, which fits well enough with the story, but except for a few notable missions, most of the campaign takes place in open terrain without any sort of time limit. Since the AI are not especially clever, regularly failing to close up on your lance or at least move in a fashion that isn’t predictable, it can often be most rewarding to stay out of their range and snipe away with hitscan weapons or missiles instead of risking combat at close range.

The plot of the game is reasonably good, although you don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool BattleTech aficionado to enjoy the game. There are a few nice references to the wider conflict between the Inner Sphere and the Clans scattered throughout the game, while the interaction between your lancemates is often interesting. Hearing the Clan transmissions between members of the Warrior Caste and their commanders berating them for their poor performances is rather enjoyable as well, along with the frequent cursing of “Inner Sphere surats” or other Clan-specific insults.

Graphically, the game is serviceable for a game more than a decade old, although the limitation of the game to 4:3 resolution ratios with a maximum of 1024×768 in hardware-assisted mode and 640×480 in software mode is somewhat frustrating with the newer breed of high-resolution widescreen monitors. A more pressing matter is the game’s incompatibility in the hardware-assisted mode with newer ATI or AMD graphics cards; this is related to the game’s use of a 16-bit z-buffer and requires a fan-made patch to be applied to the game to stop major graphical glitches which make the game nearly unplayable.


In the middle of battle with some Light BattleMechs.

The sounds are reasonably good, with a good set of sounds to represent the pounding of a mech’s foot on solid ground or the splashing of mechs through water. Weapon sounds are reasonable, with the choppy sound of autocannon fire, the whooshing of missiles or the high-pitched pulse of a laser being fired (disregarding how realistic that might be). Musically, on the other hand, the game isn’t much to speak about; there are two tracks that repeat throughout the game, neither especially long and both more ambient than anything else. If you can’t get the Red Book audio to play, it’s not a massive loss.

There is one major flaw with the game, although it’s not inherent to the game but instead an issue with the time when it was created. The game does not play well with modern operating systems. Installing the game on Windows 7 is a challenge, while trying to get it playing can be frustrating. One issue which I have periodically experienced even with a game patched for the ATI graphics glitches is the tendency for the game to freeze during the loading of a mission. This can be resolved by switching the program out of the foreground, e.g. by opening the Task Manager. However, when returning to the game, the ATI graphics glitches resume, with many textures in the game replaced by rainbow-like smears of red, green and blue, which negates the very solution that the ATI graphics patch was meant to fix. However, when the game does start working, it works smoothly and without particular problems. It’s a pity about the incompatibility of Windows 95/98-era games with more modern versions of Windows, but then again, I’d rather have an operating system that works and worry about the games later.

Bottom Line:MechWarrior 3 is a solid game, with strong fundamental gameplay and a decent plot, but doesn’t play nicely with modern versions of Windows. In terms of gameplay, whether you’ll prefer this game over the more forgiving gameplay of MechWarrior 4 and its expansions all depends on how close you want your computer games to be to the tabletop game.

Recommendation:If you’re interested in mecha games or the BattleTech universe, you will be well-served by this game. Just be ready for a bunch of frustration if you try to run it on anything more modern than Windows 98.